The Icelandic Phallological Museum

On my second-last day in Reykjavik, I visited the penis museum. It was a strange place, stocked with the phalluses of 93 species preserved in jam jars and glass tanks. There were tanned scrotums on the walls alongside paintings, drawings. And the first thing I saw, right before the whale cock almost as tall as me, was the museum founder's hand-carved, penis-themed dinner set. Indeed.

the director's dinner set

whale penis

a sad (badly preserved?) human penis
a bad carving job

a shockingly beautiful reindeer penis



another whale 

horse penis

the Icelandic handball team

on the wall

uh, yes--scrotum lamps

The God Odin and Gunnlod

seal penis

I have to admit that the silver casts of the silver-medal winning Icelandic handball team were extremely entertaining, though I failed to get pictures of the "troll", "ghost" and "Huldufolk" specimens. Throughout the museum, geeky obsession and enthusiasm mixed so thoroughly with self-mockery that I wasn't sure if it backfired on itself. I wondered how I would feel as a man--if I would feel exploited, ever-so-slightly ridiculed, a bit of a joke. Not that there isn't something inherently funny about genitalia, in general. I just wondered.

Question: Would a vagina or a clitoris museum in this style be considered refreshing or sacrilegious?

The "erotic" material in the museum (a sort of pathetic collection of dildos) was kept under a black cloth, which the viewer was requested to replace after viewing. Another question: why make any attempt to separate the penis as an organ and a cultural reference from . . . sex? (Do you really think I have Art in mind when, in the gift shop, I consider purchasing a beautiful cowhorn "sculpture"?) To take a source of universal fascination, obscene humour, folk reference, and ubiquitous symbolism out of the sexual context in which there is, for many people at least, a genuine appreciation and attraction, is to create an incomplete and condescending representation.

However. It's undeniable that the museum's collection is scientifically valuable and informative; also undeniable that the visitors' guidebook suggests that a sense of humour is essential to enjoying one's visit. And I did enjoy it. Thoughts?

landscape vs. hostel

site of the first Icelandic parliaments

When my bus tour arrived at the geyser site (where I saw Strokkur erupt three times), the tour guide announced that we were there on the first day that the farmers from the surrounding area were, with dubious legal sanction, charging admission. We got out of the bus, and along with everyone else (the contents of several buses) I approached the chilled men and women in waterproof coveralls standing at the roped-off entrance. Their level of organization fascinated me. Tickets, brochures, and wireless debit machines were produced from their fanny packs. Were they that eager, or that resentful? I smiled awkwardly, paid my 700 ISK, made my way along paths beside bubbling pots in the earth, took my pictures.                                 

view from the front door of Kex hostel

hostel kitchen

dorm - I'm the top bunk on the right, by the window


I swam in this water during a blizzard.

The tour guide also told us about the Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness as we passed by his house. I ordered Independent People from amazon that night, because the guide said that, although people had strong opinions on either side of his other novels, few people in Iceland were unfamiliar with, or could dislike, Independent People. I just started it today.

the bevy

This pond in Reykjavik was one of my happiest discoveries. I turned the corner and saw tens of swans, and a little boy petting them. I saw my first proverbially ugly duckling, so scrubby--its neck so wobbly it looked broken.

Those ducks with glowing pink feet!

Those bottlegreen mallards!

Those seagulls and pigeons!

Those curious little black and white birds overseeing it all.

And swans.

Such a community.

Wings everywhere. Flight beginning at my feet as I inched down the ramp, splashed by landings. Curious creatures waddling right up to me. Honking and calling. What kind of mad, innocent, cheerful interactions do I have to compare to this? None.

on being a tourist

I was not an exotic specimen in Iceland. The Middle-Aged Tourists From Florida (forgive me) thought I was a local; the locals thought nothing of me at all. Though tourist season hadn't started yet, with our DSLRs and backpacks, we were everywhere. Almost every morning I saw someone walking along the street with a rolling suitcase, just in from the early flight. 



There was a great deal of construction going on in downtown Reykjavik. Whole new streets of shopping and new hotels. At some point, a bus driver told us that old houses were being knocked down to accommodate more tourists. I was uncomfortable. I was even more uncomfortable when I saw this graffiti next to a new building site:

Eerie, how it seemed all of Iceland had so successfully and completely branded itself. I saw lopapeysur on everyone. Much like cowichans here, a piece of more-or-less traditional clothing morphed into a hipster uniform. But these were the realest hipsters I had ever seen. In the one third-wave coffee shop I visited, they were playing records, changing them regularly. If that shop had been in Edmonton, the record player would have been there, but they would have been playing an iPod, or streaming Songza. All of Iceland seemed tinged with this kind of postmodern mash-up of old with new, new made to seem old and old made to seem new. (I suppose the biggest difference is that, in Canada, there isn't much visible that is traditional or old. Our slow, steady progress has been erasing the past as it goes. It was as if Iceland's sudden leaps forward had cleared large swaths of the old, and left them intact.)

On the one hand, a culture much more visible and entrenched than Canadian culture. Young Icelanders who seemed to have a kind of national pride and identity I've never witnessed in Canada (and certainly not in Edmonton, which people who live here tend to refer to as 'Stabmonton', 'Deadmonton').  On the other hand, a country which built its first paved roads less than 60 years ago and which has since become one of the most modern and progressive countries in the world. 

Hannalisa, a wonderful Icelandic woman I met on my last day, explained the difference between the "old ice cream" and the "new ice cream". The old ice cream was made with milk, was colder, and was more traditional and thus preferred by everyone. The new ice cream was made with cream. I admit that this dichotomy confused me a bit, as both old and new ice cream were forms of soft serve. 

On a whim, I tagged along with a lovely guy from the hostel and attended the university LGBT group's meeting. I asked about surrogacy in Iceland (BC just passed legislation to allow for three or more parents to be listed on a birth certificate, and I was curious about how this issue was being managed in left, progressive Iceland). They told me that, due to worry that women would be exploited for their reproductive capacity, surrogacy wasn't being encouraged. This is the same country that outlawed strip clubs on feminist grounds, that had the world's first openly lebsian prime minister. 

Was it cultural ignorance or observational cherry picking that made me wonder whether there wasn't a certain level of wariness or antagonism between the men and women I saw? I rarely saw couples or mixed groups of Icelanders. I saw intimidating groups of boisterous, fashionable men and intimidating groups of cool, glamorous women. Was it my own position that made me sense the same reserve between men and women as between locals and tourists?

Everything seemed local, a product or a consequence of the place. Iceland the island. There was nearly ubiquitous geothermal heating; there was hardly any produce in the grocery stores. (I saw cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, and two kinds of apples, nothing else.) Everyone was white. My friend from the hostel gave me the locals' version of social life in Reykjavik for a twenty-something: Because the population is so small and interconnected, everyone knows everyone and the dating scene is less of a dating scene and more of a hook-up scene--perhaps to avoid the drama of making and breaking stronger connections. Apparently the weekends were wild, the streets downtown covered with broken glass by the time everyone went home at five or six in the morning. When I went out at 8 in the morning, someone had cleaned it all up. There was lots of graffiti, but no obvious attempts to cover it up or discourage it. I didn't quite understand. 

Hanna gave me a list of Icelandic bands to check out. She also gave me the CD in her car, and this is one of the songs on it: 

Reykjavik windows

Sunday morning wall planter--with egg

basement suite?
the first of Sunday's domestic windows

Iceland. On Sunday morning, I went for a walk and discovered the windows of downtown Reykjavik. I should have photographed more of them, but I was uncomfortable walking around with my tourist's camera on a strap, staring into people's homes. Good lord, couldn't I afford them any privacy? I fed my conscience some crumbs: They intended these windows to be peered at. In many, many houses and apartments, on the public side of the curtain, appeared little displays. Shop windows with nothing for sale, relics of Amsterdam, a lettuce.

(Why? Why here and not in Edmonton?)


Christmas roofs


above the egg

at the top of a hill, a grass roof

view from the hostel dorm room

my own window

favorite lettuce

I was charmed. In true character, on Sunday morning I was feeling anxious about being in Iceland. I wrote:

I've had a hard time being here. I've felt almost constantly that I am creating an inadequate experience for myself. I've been ashamed of needing to spend so much time alone on my bunk . . .  All useless, and really quite mean. I've seen and done a lot since arriving here, and I've had a Good Time (when not feeling paralyzed by shame, so much so that I couldn't even take photographs). 

When will I learn to be gentler?


view from other dorm window


that way

three old houses downtown

Sunday morning roofs and windows

concrete cathedral

some apartments 
pub window

In retrospect, the Sunday walk was a triumph. I was fretful. I felt lost and lonely. I felt like an imposter. Who was I? Those houses and windows and roofs illustrated so much of what I find beautiful and important to notice and cultivate in everyday life. Colours, lines, signs of people traveling, growing things, retreating home, displaying a chosen face, arranging their worlds. 

More pictures followed, so--more Iceland posts to come.